About chestercycling

After a number of years in Manchester, writing the blog MCRcycling a new job has brought me to the historic and picturesque city of Chester. Much as before I will be writing about my experiences cycling in Chester along with general cycle advocacy and technical information and how-to guides related to the cycling components I indulge in.

Axa HR Traction bottle dynamo

The last holdout bike in the household has finally ditched battery lights. After giving her Brompton a dynamo wheel by selflessly buying myself a new Brompton, I had been promising Ms C. that I would sort out her Kona Africa bike with dynamo lights. Due to various upgrades I had managed to end up with a spare B&M Lumotec Retro front lamp and a spare Brompton Spanninga rear light. All I was waiting for was the next time I needed to order something from Rose Bikes and I could add on one of their cheap Axa HR Traction bottle dynamos. Thanks to worn out stock Brompton brake pads, that time finally came.

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This is the same dynamo which used to be specified by Brompton (the left mounting version) before the Shimano dynamo hubs became available. Rose sell them for £14-15, depending on exchange rate, which is probably quite galling for anyone who bought them as a Brompton part. Thankfully, the parts needed to run this dynamo on the Brompton rear wheel (a special stay and a mudguard with a cut-out) are still available as spares, making this particular dynamo probably the cheapest (and fully supported) route to dynamo lighting on a Brompton.

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The bottom of the dynamo has two pairs of remarkably simple wire connectors, simply insert stripped wire into plastic housing and push it into the dynamo body. The arrangement allows front and rear lights to be connected to the dynamo independently of each other, rather than requiring the rear light be connected through the front as is the case with most hub dynamo set-ups. In the end I ran the rear light from the connectors on the Lumotec Retro so that it would be less work if the Kona Africa Bike ended up with a hub dynamo.

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Axa also make a dynamo mounting bracket which screws onto cantilever/linear pull brake bosses (front left/rear right only – requires left mounting version of dynamo). A simple design which works well, although the screw shown connecting bracket and dynamo was not included.

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Since the Africa Bike was kitted out with a front rack in 2011, the front lamp could not be mounted on the fork crown or using the headset bracket. Instead I used the cork-lined p-clip supplied with the front rack to fix the lamp in place on the right hand supporting leg, Japanese style.

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Not exactly elegant, but it does the job.

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Similarly, the rear light attachment was a bit of a bodge. Since the rear rack in integral to the Africa Bike’s frame and lacks a rear light mounting plate, I drilled four holes into a roughly 100 mm section of trunking lid I had knocking about. Two of these were for the fixing bolts on the light, the other two were to create a slot for the jubilee clip used to attach the creation to the rear rack. Not pretty but it does the job.

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I took the bike out for a spin with the dynamo on to make sure I had set it up without too much pressure causing excessive drag. Thankfully it was spot-on; other than the whirr of the roller it was barely noticeable. For a bike such as this which is used as practical transportation rather than high speed, high effort riding, this set-up works really well.

Driving Lessons

Due to a combination of factors, including discrimination against non-drivers when job-hunting, the problem of Christmas and most significantly an effective contractual obligation, last year I ended up learning to drive. I thought it might be interesting to keep a record of the experience, as an outsider’s perspective.

Lesson One:

Driving instructor asked me if I had any previous driving experience. I answered literally, telling him that I had driven a car a few times, not on the road, around ten years ago. We headed to a part of Blacon with plenty of quiet residential streets and he proceeded to explain how the machine worked, about the mirrors and the visual limitations of being in car, particularly the wide pillars either side of the windscreen and between the side doors.

Eventually I got to drive the car. It was quite an odd experience, I felt a bit low down and quite detached from the environment I was passing through. Eventually we ended up on some of the two-lane main roads (which are sadly commonplace in Chester) for a bit of practice with roundabouts. The whole time, I was shocked at how easy it was. Other drivers didn’t routinely cut me up or try to force me to yield. Decades of car-centric planning and road design, combined with extremely generous subsidies made this big, wide, five-person vehicle perhaps the easiest way to get around the peripheral areas of Chester. Roundabouts in particular were a revelation, being much easier in a faster vehicle where other road users don’t routinely try to bully you into giving up priority.

Lesson Two:

This lesson involved a lot more driving on faster roads. I was also encouraged to turn the car around on a few different quiet roads, which helped to bring home how poor the range of vision in cars can be, demonstrating how inappropriate they are in an urban setting. Presumably the instructor’s curriculum is aimed at the widest possible audience; much of the lesson was spent going over stuff which anyone who regularly uses the roads would have picked up, regardless of mode.

Lesson Three:

Reversing into parking bays is the main lesson here, with recaps of the other stuff we have covered. We also covered emergency stops. In an automatic, emergency stops are much the same as on a bike (except you don’t need to move your weight backwards because cars are generally quite heavy already).

On the faster roads I really started to notice how ubiquitous speeding is. On a bike I will generally find myself going as fast as I can on a fast road which is busy. In a flow of traffic where everyone is speeding, it is possible for a learner to get sucked into the flow. Thankfully, despite what the Association of British Drivers says, it is actually very easy to look at the speedometer quite frequently and adjust speed accordingly. Compared to having a queue of impatient motorists behind you when riding a bike, a queue of impatient motorists behind you when you’re in a car is actually quite fun. This is probably because you are not just one impatient idiot away from death or injury.

Lesson Four:

This lesson covered dual carriageways, the sort which are basically motorways in all but name. This was the first part of the process of learning to drive where I didn’t already have some sort of analogous experience to draw upon. Thankfully, getting onto the dual carriageway seems to be the hardest part, and it is actually fairly easy due to good design. As someone who normally experiences UK road design on a bike, I was surprised to see that UK road engineers can design something properly, provided that it is something which is only used by fast motor vehicles.

The main issue with dual carriageways it seems is the roundabouts at the entrances and exits. These suffer from the same problems as all roundabouts in this country; an unwillingness of designers to standardise designs in a logical manner. The result of this is that when encountering a roundabout for the first time, you don’t really know what to expect. A handful of standardised roundabout templates as used in The Netherlands (which also happen to acknowledge the existence of other transport modes without treating their users like crap) is so obviously a good idea. The fact that we in the UK have not already done so neatly illustrates the complete failure of British road design.

Lesson Five:

My instructor wasn’t available for the usual weekend lesson, so instead I had a lesson before work with the intention of finishing at my place of work in Wrexham. This was the first time driving for any length of time without any instruction. Naturally I took the route to Wrexham I would’ve chosen were I traveling by bike (with a few tweaks to make the route car-legal). Travelling through inner Chester, the car was of course a hugely inappropriate choice of transport, yet my passage through the centre of the city was made easier by  expensive bits engineering such as the inner ring road, which were built to facilitate short journeys into the city by individuals using vehicles designed for five.

In this lesson, my experience of using the roads on the bike was less helpful; the instructor told me I was checking the blind spot on the driver-side more frequently than was necessary. I’m sure anyone who has ridden on UK roads for any length of time will know why I’ve fallen into this habit.

Lesson Six:

Reverse (parallel) parking today. Like all the other manoeuvres, I got it right first time. I think my driving instructor is a bit baffled by this, considering the fact that my general driving is not perfect. However, he doesn’t know that I used to drive a pallet truck for a few years in an old part-time job, and all of the manoeuvres done so far were frequently required doing that job.

There seem to be a few bad habits I’ve picked up from cycling, such as having to make a conscious effort to feed through the steering wheel when steering, and some road positioning which is taken from vehicular cycling but probably just confuses my instructor, such as positioning the car in a way to prevent overtaking which I would not feel happy with were I on a bike.

I found out the instructor used to have a 60s Moulton, so we spent much of the lesson talking about the new models, of which he was not aware.

Theory Test:

Other than a handful of motor vehicle-specific questions (generally motorway-related questions) anyone who has been cycling for a while should have picked up what they need to know to do ok in the multiple-choice part of the test.

The hazard perception test looks hilariously dated. I get the impression that much of the development work will have been done at a time when the government representative responsible for the project would have used the term, “new-fangled computers.” The test takes the form of several video clips taken with a single fixed video camera, at roughly VHS-quality from the front of a car. You are encouraged to click you see a hazard which is developing and again when action must be taken. You do not have to click where the hazard appears on the screen because the system is too basic. Because of this, the hazard perception test does precious little to gauge a person’s ability to perceive hazards. With a bit of modern (ie: post-2000) technology, the test could be greatly improved to make it fit for purpose.

Despite its inherent limitations, if you have been riding a bike on the roads for a while, you shouldn’t have much trouble with the hazard perception test.

Practical test:

After a hiatus of nearly two months, upon returning from Japan I had a few more driving lessons in preparation for the test. It is quite telling that, despite the fact that there is a driving test centre in most towns; the waiting list for a driving test is often months long. It is possible that a big part of this is due to people who ‘brute force’ the driving test; taking a sufficiently large number of tests so as to pass one eventually. I was eventually able to get a test slot which I was able to make and thanks to years of cycling on UK roads and as you’d expect after surviving years of cycling on Britain’s roads, the test went fine, being remarkably simple considering the sheer amount of destruction a car can cause. there were some interesting anomalies I noticed during the examinations

Speed Limits:

During driving lessons and during the driving test, you are encouraged to travel as close to the posted speed limit as possible without going over, barring any major conditions which dictate otherwise. It is actually possible to be penalised for travelling within the speed limit but at a level deemed ‘too slow,’ such as 20 mph in a residential area posted as 30 mph but which really should be 20 mph. This may be a contributing factor behind drivers commonly treating speed limits as speed targets or minimums and really ought to be addressed by the Department for Cars Transport. Thankfully though, even with little driving experience, periodically glancing at the speedometer to ensure speed stays in check is a trivial matter.

Non-motorised traffic:

At no point during any of the testing was I required to know anything about the techniques recommended for cyclists by Bikeability training, such as ‘taking the lane.’ My instructor, after finding out I use a bike for transport even asked me about the reason for this particular behaviour. Whilst we are waiting for our roads to be made fit for purpose for non-motorised travellers, this really ought to be addressed by the Department for Cars Transport.

Aftermath:

Once you have passed the examinations you may be surprised to learn that unless you are one of the few people for whom actually owning a car might make sense, your shiny new pink card is basically useless for twelve months. Whilst I wouldn’t want to own a car, hiring one occasionally could be useful under certain circumstances. However, in general car hire companies will not hire a car to anyone who doesn’t have 12 months not-driving experience under their belt, so there is a very good chance that (for the time being at least) you’ve spent all that money just to change the colour of the card you use prove you are old enough to buy booze.

The Twelve Days of Christmas (2012)

The festive season is upon us once again, so I thought I would re-post a modified version of this post from 2011. Perhaps next year we will be able to get a choir together in time…

On the Twelfth day of Christmas my council gave to me

 

Twelve “Cyclists Dismount”s

 

Eleven-inch wide bike lanes 

 

Ten side-road give-ways 

 

Nine wheel-benders

 

 

Eight near misses

 
Courtesy of MiddleAgeCyclist

 Seven pointless ‘A’ frames

 
 

Six-Pounds from the budget 

 

Five bro-ken rims 

 

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Four “Stupid twats”

 

 
Image courtesy of road.cc

Free high-vis

 

Image courtesy of Derbyshire Constabulary

Two ASLs 

 

Image courtesy of Crap Cycling & Walking in Waltham Forest (RIP – again)

 And a bike lane running through a tree

 

Image courtesy of Facility of the Month

Cycling to Shibuya

As discussed in the last post, I am currently staying in Saitama, a city in the Greater Tokyo area which is approximately 25 km outside of central Tokyo. On Sunday I found myself at a bit of a loose end, the weather was crisp, clear and bright, perfect for a bit of exploration.

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Japan’s version of a ‘shared use’ facility. Because Japan doesn’t treat its pedestrians with the same level of contempt as the UK does, the concept works surprisingly well.

Not willing to pay the extortionate rate expected for mobile data roaming (and forgetting to activate even the possibility before leaving the UK) I had to rely on an offline map for navigation. Add to this the unexplained failure of my phone’s GPS since arriving in Japan and I realised that travelling through the most populous metropolitan area in the world might require some creative navigation. After wandering around for a bit, I decided that I would use the train lines as a means of navigating. Thanks to the Carradice bag packed in my T-bag, I knew that I could easily pack the Brompton up and hop on the (quite easy to use) rail network should the need arise.

After heading towards central Tokyo for a while, I realised that if I followed the forking points of the train tracks correctly I could make it to Shibuya, a place I’ve wanted to see since sinking many an hour into Jet Set Radio many years ago.

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The Greater Tokyo area is remarkably permeable. Whilst there are some one-way restrictions for motor vehicles which do not apply to cyclists and pedestrians, this high level of permeability applies to motor vehicles almost as much as cycle and foot traffic. In order to make my journey I merely needed to have a rough idea of which direction I needed to travel in and the roads and streets always managed to allow me a way through. Despite this permeability, I was not bothered by a particularly notable volume of motor traffic on residential streets. Navigating through the crowds of pedestrians and other cyclists was the main obstacle I encountered and was one I was happy to work around.

This lack of rat-running is likely in part due to the fact that it just doesn’t seem to be acceptable here to haphazardly discard your car on whatever piece of public land you fancy at the other end of your journey. Cars here are stored when not in use, not carelessly abandoned. The result is that people seem to make fewer frivolous car trips (and seem to own fewer frivolous cars) with the bicycle picking up the slack instead. Residential streets are places rather than just routes, and these places are perfectly inviting for cycling and walking.

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Fancy a hot can of (surprisingly good) coffee whilst wandering, slightly lost, through a Shenmue-esque neighbourhood? No problem (I recommend the Rainbow Blend).

In addition to the extensive network of pleasant, permeable residential streets there are plenty of big, multi-lane car-centric roads running throughout Greater Tokyo. Thankfully these roads are made relatively pleasant thanks to two measures; shared use facilities and smoothing traffic flow.

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Cultural differences abound in Japan; here this sign is not an iron-clad guarantee you’ll have a bad cycling or walking experience.

Shared use facilities in Japan, whilst not a perfect solution, work unexpectedly well on the major routes. This is largely due to the fact that pedestrians are not treated with the same level of contempt in Japan that they are in the UK, so when cyclists and pedestrians are lumped together the experience is still positive. Presumably as a result of the ubiquitousness of shared use in Japan, there is not a great deal of conflict between the two types of user; pedestrians expect the encounter cyclists and cyclists expect to have to slow down or stop for pedestrians where volumes of foot traffic are higher.

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An elderly lady rides a typical Japanese city bike along one a shared use pavement. I’m not sure how she would feel about doing the same in London.

Don’t like it? Want to go faster? Get on the road. Cycling on main roads in Japan is also surprisingly pleasant thanks to measures which smooth the flow of traffic; all types of traffic. Next to the shared use sign in the above picture is a ’40′ sign, indicating a speed limit of 40 km/h or 25mph on what is effectively an urban dual carriageway. This speed limit, enforced by frequent stops for motor traffic at practically every set of traffic lights results in a consistent, smooth flow of motor, bicycle and foot traffic rather than the frequent short bursts of dangerous speed from motorists enabled by the complete subjugation of cyclists and pedestrians which we have in the UK.

The shared use facilities have priority over minor side roads which is enforced by a combination of fairly tight turning geometry and a general tendency amongst motorists to act as if they are in charge of machines which could easily kill or maim people if operated without due care and attention. At major intersections, motorists, cyclists and pedestrians get a green phase in the same direction at the same time. Motorists are permitted to turn left but must defer to bicycle and foot traffic heading straight ahead. Again this works surprisingly well thanks to a technique which Japanese motorists have developed known as ‘paying attention.’

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The very big roads have separate little roads running alongside them which are used for cycling, walking and as residents’ access. The structure above the road in this shot is a motorway which has high noise-abating walls.

Through a combination of these different types of road, I followed the train line a rather circuitous, approximately 50 km route to Shibuya. I saw plenty of little slices of life in Japan; a mother cycling to the shops with her child and his grandfather not far behind, children cycling unaccompanied along city streets and shopping malls so inundated that you have to pay for bicycle parking.

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Whilst it doesn’t hold up to The Netherlands example, Tokyo shows what can be achieved when government policy at least doesn’t actively suppress cycling.

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This was the one point I thought I may have to turn back; I had cycled down a residential street to an ornamental garden next to a river. I carried the Brompton down the steps and found that there was a path leading to a footbridge over the river leading me back to the train tracks I was using to navigate.

Eventually I made it to Shibuya. By this point my arms were really aching; unlike making a similar journey in the UK, I didn’t need to stop all that often. It turns out that my body has grown accustomed to the frequent stops I must make as a cyclist in the UK riding on a road network designed solely around motor traffic.

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A street in Shinjuku, pedestrianised during shopping hours. Nearby here is where I saw the only HGV I have seen in Japan. It was being used as a mobile stage to promote an album launch. Major freight movements seem to be by rail.

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A scramble crossing outside Shibuya station. By the time I got to Shibuya, after a short wander around, I was so tired I decided to head back to Saitama. Sometimes it is all about the journey.

Cycling alone and through the one of the most densely populated areas on the planet, I was unfamiliar with the language and the specifics of the law and yet I still felt safer than I ever do cycling on the roads back in the UK. The UK really has an awful long way to go.

Cycle parking in Saitama

I am currently in Saitama, a prefecture of Japan in the Greater Tokyo area. despite being overshadowed by nearby Tokyo, Saitama is a city in its own right and a dense one at that, more so than most cities in the UK. Cycling here is a mainstream mode of transport used by young and old, man and woman alike. There are parked bicycles everywhere.

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I have seen very little in the way of cycle parking facilities by UK standards, other than designated areas and structures to support cycles. No-one seems bothered about locking bikes up beyond a rear-wheel lock. These immobilised bicycles can be seen everywhere.

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I assume that this area outside a chain restaurant is designed for cycle parking.

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I spotted this cycle shelter by a small apartment building at around 16:45. I imagine it is more full after working hours.

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This higher-density facility was provided for a slightly larger apartment building.

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This alleyway near some fairly low-density (by Japanese city standards) housing is used for bicycle storage.

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This space between restaurants and other businesses is used for medium-density cycle parking for customers and staff.

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Underneath a Shinkansen train station, the large area is divided into blocks to help passengers find their bikes on their way home. Again, no Sheffield stands, just bikes on kick-stands with rear-wheel locks.

Brompton by air

I decided to try another type of multi-mode travel with the Brompton; bicycle and aeroplane. My existing suitcase is not wide enough to accommodate the Brompton, so after a bit of research on Seven League Boots I decided to opt for the Carradice Folding Bike Case.

Unlike their  excellent saddlebags, the Carradice Folding Bike Case (more of a bag than a case, really) is made from Cordura-type polyester material rather than cotton duck. Whilst I am a fan of cotton duck, the extra weight it would require would not be desirable when using this bag for air travel. However, considering the material used, I feel that this bag is a bit over-priced.

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The bag came with no padding, but thankfully it does adhere to gaffer tape quite well, making these stiff foam pieces ideal for protecting the rollers/rack in transit.

20121129_150241The bag is more than sufficiently large to fit any Brompton with a saddle attached, although configurations which differ significantly from stock may not fit. The Seven League Boots post suggested removing the saddle when using the bag for flying due to the risk of damage (particularly to a Brooks saddle) and storing it between the wheels of the folded Brompton. I use the telescopic seat-post, so I will turn the telescoping part of the post around to minimise the number and size of protrusions from the folded package, with the remaining protrusions covered over with bits of foam.

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Naturally I removed the clamps from the frame as these were an easy target for damage. I wrapped the clamps up in gaffer tape and stuck them to the frame in the middle of the fold.

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As recommended in the Seven League Boots post mentioned before, I taped the saddle into the relatively well protected space in the middle of the folded bike

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A D-lock can be locked through the frame to save space, with the gap in the middle of the fold useful for stashing bits like a locking cable. The frame from my T-bag is pushed down the side of the bike in the bag to offer a bit of extra protection as well as making the T-bag itself a less conspicuous, odd-looking piece of hand luggage.

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The final step in packing the bag is to place your trousers, jumpers, jackets etc into a standard suit bag and wrap it over the top and sides of the bike before zipping it up. This gives a bit more protection to the bike and also means that you don’t use up your entire luggage allowance on a bike. A toiletries bag can easily be seated on top of the folded bike underneath the suit bag.

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Add a couple of luggage straps and pack your hand luggage into the frame-less T-bag and you are ready to fly across the world. I’ve unpacked the Brompton at the other end and rather pleasingly, it has faired well. Now all I need to do is get to grips with cycling in a strange new land.

Safety tips for cyclists

Safety advice aimed at cyclists is nothing new, but in my experience it often tends to descend into little more than a motorists’ wish list for cyclist behaviour. Even worse is advice based on the false assumption that law breaking on the part of cyclists is the lead cause of cyclist injuries and fatalities. Instead, I thought it might be worthwhile to share my own experiences in the hope they might be useful to others.

Reading the road

Cycling on UK roads is a baptism of fire and anyone who has been doing it for any length of time will have learned to read the road ahead. The same cannot be said for everyone else. A worrying number of other road users will fail to consider what the road conditions will require of them 100, 50 or even 15 metres ahead of where they currently are. This failure is the root cause of several initially baffling behaviours. It is the reason that motorists will sometimes perform a risky overtake only to have to immediately stop at the end of a queue of traffic which was readily visible when the manoeuvre was started. It is the reason why a motorist may overtake you only to immediately make a left turn, or pull into a roadside parking bay. It is the reason why a motorist may overtake you on a cramped residential street only to immediately stop block your progress to allow an oncoming vehicle to pass, even though had they waited, there would have been sufficient room for you on a bike and the oncoming vehicle to proceed at the same time.

Roundabouts

Sometimes it almost seems as if roundabouts were left behind by an advanced but long lost civilisation and no-one is sure what they were built for or how their builders intended them to be used. The lack of a small set of standard approaches to roundabouts certainly doesn’t help. The rules of roundabouts are fairly straightforward, but there are several things to look out for.

The general principle of giving way to traffic already on the roundabout may not apply to you when you are on your bike if the other party is driving a luxury German car, such as a BMW, Audi or Mercedes-Benz. If you are already on the roundabout and encounter one of these vehicles waiting to get on, you may be expected to give way.

There are some road users who will use the other lane of a multi-lane roundabout regardless of the exit they wish to use. These people pose a risk to you when you are getting on a roundabout, as their road positioning suggests they are intending to leave the roundabout even though this is not the case.

‘Taking the lane’ is an unfortunate necessity on most roundabouts (effectively excluding most people from cycling them) but beware that some motorists will try to bully you to the periphery of the roundabout regardless of which exit you wish to use.

Finally, it is not uncommon to see motorists leave a roundabout whilst still indicating right. The result of this misleading signalling should be that you do not enter the roundabout even though the opportunity was there. However, in areas where this behaviour is particularly prevalent, it is important to beware of this behaviour becoming normalised; you could end up pulling onto a roundabout in front of a car which really is staying on.

Professional drivers

In an ideal world, professional drivers (delivery vans, taxi drivers etc.) and our interactions with them would be exactly that; professional. Sadly, in practice this is often not the case. I can only surmise that when driving becomes a major part of a person’s job they will often become blasé about it and safety suffers as a result. Add to this business models which encourage or even necessitate illegal behaviour and we have a recipe for unpleasant encounters. Thankfully, professional drivers are generally easy to identify by way of their commercial vehicles, so at least you’ll know to expect the worst when you see them. The ease with which commercial vehicles can be identified makes reporting bad driving much easier than with private cars, although typically just as fruitless.

Texting

I have covered this issue before. Thankfully, providing the vehicle is not a pimpmobile with tinted windows, it is at least possible to spot the characteristic position a driver’s head adopts if they are reading from a phone screen whilst driving. Spotting this characteristic tilt a few weeks ago probably prevented a collision between a texting motorist and myself on a roundabout in Wrexham. So engrossed in her texting was this driver that she failed to even register my loud subsequent significant list of graphic expletives.

Indicators

As mentioned above for roundabouts, indicators are not to be trusted. Most common is the  lack of indication by a driver about to attempt a manoeuvre, but it is not uncommon to see a driver indicating the wrong way, leaving an indicator on long, long after a turn has been made or indicating a turn of a particular direction several opportunities to make a turn in that direction prior to the one they wish to take. It is especially useful to be distrustful of turn signals when pulling out of a side road; just because the driver on the road you wish to join is indicating to turn down your road often doesn’t mean they actually will.

If there are any other tips or seemingly bizarre driver behaviours anyone feels I have missed, please share them through the comments.

Cheshire Police and Crime Commissioner election

It has been around two-and-a-half weeks since I decided to attempt to directly engage with democracy by writing to the five candidates standing in the Cheshire Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections:

  • Ainsley Arnold (Liberal Democrat)
  • Louise Bours (UK Independence Party)
  • John Dwyer (Conservative)
  • Sarah Flannery (independent candidate)
  • John Stockton (Labour)

In order to ask them about whether, as Cheshire PCC, they would:

  • Protect vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists by ensuring that negligent drivers who kill or maim vulnerable road users are properly pursued and investigated by the Police
  • Tackle so-called minor motoring offences, such as speeding, red-light jumping, pavement driving and smartphone use whilst driving which diminish safety (both real and perceived) for vulnerable road users.
  • Deal with the blight of illegal and anti-social parking, which is particularly prevalent in Chester where there is currently close to zero enforcement against motorists who obstruct pavements and park in restricted areas.

Despite the widespread apathy towards these elections, only one of the candidates I wrote to replied at all. To my surprise, the candidate who replied was John Dwyer, the Conservative Party candidate:

“I realise that your focus is on cyclists and pedestrians but I feel there is a wider picture relating to all road users.

The vast majority of motorists are decent hard working law abiding people like you and me. However, there is a small number who, quite frankly, don’t give a thought to others on the road. These are people who don’t tax and insure their cars, who drink and drive, who take drugs and drive and who regularly break speed limits, particularly in residential areas. There is also a minority [sic] who park carelessly causing obstruction in the way you have described in your letter.

Where these issues are presenting themselves I would want the police and other enforcement agencies, such as local authorities, to take steps to prevent the committing of the offences in the first place and to take appropriate enforcement steps where the preventative measures have failed to work. The Crown Prosecution Service has told me that if the Police and Crime Commissioner indicates to them that this is a particular issue in a certain area then they will judge enforcement to be ‘in the public interest’ and not dismiss prosecution as an option.

It is my intention to ensure that we have robust processes in place to provide me with the appropriate information to support the positive action I know you are seeking.”

I have not heard from any other the other candidates, other than Sarah Flannery‘s representative on Twitter, who led me to believe she may have intended to reply but has not done so at the time of writing. I can only surmise that the other candidates saw my letter was to do with pedestrian and cyclist issues and decided that it was not worth their time.

I was also interested to see that Rod King of Twenty’s Plenty had engaged with Louise Bours, the UKIP candidate to see if she was supportive of the campaign. The response given is quite telling. Unprompted, whilst professing some support for 20 mph, she chooses to defend the criminal behaviour of motorists who choose to ignore speed limits on dual carriageways.

Honestly, my attempt to engage with the democratic process, and the corresponding lack of interest from four of the five candidates has left me feeling rather disaffected with the whole thing.  However, I urge you all to go out and vote tomorrow, even if you just spoil your ballot paper.

A standards-based approach to roads

Dearest readers, I’ve got a bit of a confession to make; I’ve been learning how to drive a car. Don’t worry though, I’m not planning on buying one or giving up on cycling. In fact, one of the main reasons is  (as I have written about before) there is an awful lot of discrimination against non-drivers when applying for jobs which do not require any driving whatsoever. I will write in more detail about the experience of learning to drive in another post.

Whilst first-hand experience has only enhanced my belief that our current approach to road design always favours the convenience of motorists over the safety of all other road users (after years of UK cycling, driving is really easy) there is one aspect which remained the same whether cycling or driving; the inconsistency of the road experience. Many of the routes I have driven down on driving lessons are the sorts I would usually avoid when travelling by bike (such as the A55) which has allowed me to see areas of the road network which I have traditionally been effectively excluded from.

Grosvenor Court Roundabout

For example, in the centre of Chester there is the Grosvenor Court square roundabout where the dual carriageway surrounding the town centre meets the Foregate Street (the end Chester’s ‘shared space’ main shopping street) and City Road, which leads to the train station. The lane markings on this roundabout highlight the inconsistency in UK road design.

Entering this roundabout from Foregate Street, you are encouraged to use the left lane for taking the first exit or travelling straight on. The second lane is straight on only, with convention dictating that this lane is used when the left lane is busy.

Entering the roundabout in the left lane, with the intention to go straight on, you are then confronted with this. You must move into the middle lane to go straight on. Hopefully the person in the right lane knows not to enter this lane.

The two lanes are now both marked as straight on. Best practice dictates that if possible you should stay in the left lane.

Once again, a middle lane opens up. This time it is for the users of the right-hand lane to use, presumably for the purposes of traffic stacking.

Here, the left hand lane can be used to take the left exit, or to go straight on. Once again it is best practice to where possible, to stick to the left when going straight on here. In this image it appears that the driver of the silver hatchback has become confused by the layout of this particular roundabout and is in the process of changing lanes.

This is probably why the driver became confused, the left lane allows traffic to take the left exit or go straight on. There are four traffic lanes by this point.

This time, neither of the two left-hand lanes allow traffic to proceed straight on. Instead, the left two lanes are directed onto the A51, a short urban dual carriageway lined with various businesses.

Hoole Way Roundabout

This is the approach to Hoole Way roundabout from St. Oswalds Way (West). Here the left lane is for the exclusive use of traffic taking the first exit, with straight on traffic sent to the right-hand lane.

Here we can see that the right-hand lane can be used for taking the right-hand lane of the first exit onto Hoole Way, another short urban dual carriageway, or to stay on the roundabout in the leftmost of the three lanes at the traffic lights.

This lane is labelled with a straight arrow, indicating that traffic using this lane may proceed straight on. However, in this case, this is actually referring to leaving the roundabout at the next exit, St Oswalds Way (East)

Both of these roundabouts have significant internal inconsistencies in their design, in addition to differing from each other. Despite this, they are actually next to each other on Chester’s bizarre inner ring road (bizarre because despite it being a dual carriageway, not one of the roads feeding in or out of the ring road is a dual carriageway).

The result of these inconsistencies is confusion. Whilst locals will become familiar with the particular peculiarities of the roads, junctions and roundabouts in their area, those visiting an area, or who do not frequently use a particular road, junction or roundabout will not be. The non-standardised nature of the design of roads, junctions and roundabouts in the UK means that experience of other roads, junctions or roundabouts on the road network will not necessarily prepare a person for using any other road, junction or roundabout.

Add to this distraction, lapses in concentration, poor maintenance, vastly different modes of transport sharing the same infrastructure and good old fashioned incompetence and we have the British road network, a recipe for a disaster which claims thousands of lives each year and which effectively restricts the choice of transport for many to only the most heavily armoured modes.

I decided to write this piece during an ISO 9001 training session. Whilst not exactly riveting stuff, it impressed upon me the value of consistency. Most of the problems with the UK road network find their root in this lack of consistency, standardisation is sorely lacking in almost all aspects of road design. This is why there are inconsistencies between the roundabouts examined above; there is no standard[1][2][3] to make road features such as roundabouts consistent internally, let alone consistent with with each other. The result is that a road user has no idea what to expect when encountering a roundabout or large junction for the first time.

This is also why we have little cycle infrastructure, with much of what has been provided being less than useless; there is currently no requirement to provide cycle infrastructure on any road and where planners choose to add it, there is no standard to ensure cycle infrastructure is consistent, safe or functional. All that exists is guidance which offers generally poor solutions and is easily ignored by highways engineers and local authorities. This lack of standardisation makes cycle infrastructure especially vulnerable to corner cutting and thoughtless, dangerous design choices based on the whims and prejudices of the individuals responsible for a given project. The situation is little better when it comes to pedestrian infrastructure.

Before I took driving lessons, I wanted the UK to adopt a Dutch approach to road design because I was a cyclist. Having experienced the roads from the perspective of a motorist, I  want it just as much. Regardless of mode, the road user experience needs to be consistent in order to be safe. This consistency means making sure road users know what to expect when tackling a particular type of junction, it means that the safety and convenience of a particular group of road users can’t be subordinated (or ignored altogether) based on the whims of individual planners or councillors. Regardless of how you travel, we should all be able to agree that it’s time for a standards-based approach to road design.

Eric in an ideological Pickle over parking

I was interested to read about Eric Pickles’ statement about local authorities and car parking charges on the recently resurrected Crap Waltham Forest blog.

Councils will have to declare the total paid by drivers to park in both on-street and off-street bays, after new government figures showed local authorities’ total income from parking hitting £1.27 billion last year. 

Ministers believe the new “transparency” drive is vital to ensure local politicians can be properly held to account by motorists – and to help reverse the decline of the country’s high streets, including the closure of businesses. 

Earlier this year a government report conducted by Mary Portas, the retail expert, identified that high cost of parking as one of the reasons why shoppers were deserting high streets in favour of out-of-town centres where parking is often free. 

Mr Pickles said: “We are ending an era of bureaucratic accountability and replacing it with a more open era of democratic accountability. It is right that taxpayers get to see how town halls spend their hard earned taxes so they can properly hold local politicians to account. 

“As part of that we will expose a great council cash cow cover-up, unmasking punitive parking practices that hit residents in the pocket. We’re calling time on the billion pound local war against motorists – now, more than ever, we need to see the back of this shopping tax and encourage more people onto the high street.” 

Town halls are supposed to control parking to improve traffic flow and stop gridlock occurring, and they are prohibited by law from using their powers in this area simply to boost their income. However, ministers and their advisers believe a growing number of councils seek to get round these rules by earmarking the cash raised for other transport projects.

Mr Pickles, the Conservative Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government seems to be suggesting that it is wrong for councils to charge for car parking on their sites at rates which allow them to turn a profit and that these rates should therefore be reduced.

This statement confused me immensely for several reasons. Firstly, as Conservative minister, should Mr Pickles not believe that it is wrong for local authorities to use their position to offer parking facilities at prices with which the private sector could never compete? Surely the idea of government crowding out the private sector when it comes to the provision of car parking facilities if at odds with the Conservative ideology. Naturally, the first step in remedying this would be for local authorities to increase their parking charges to allow the more dynamic and efficient private sector to step in.

Secondly, as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, surely Mr Pickles should be aware that accommodating to many private motor vehicles in town centres contributes to their downfall. Shopkeepers grossly overestimate the amount of their customers who arrive by car, falling to see that, in town centres, pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users are usually better customers.

Thirdly, providing subsidised parking in town centres tends to damage town centres by excluding those who wish to, or have no other option than to arrive by different modes of travel. The town centre of my native Rochdale is a good example of this; surrounded on three sides by dual carriageways Rochdale’s local authority has done everything possible to accommodate private motor vehicles in the centre of town. The result of this is that the centre of Rochdale us barely accessible by non-motorised means. The tragedy of Rochdale is that even though it’s local authority sacrificed the safety and convenience of pedestrians and cyclists to benefit motorists, it has not produced an otherwise-successful town centre. It is no coincidence that Rochdale has one of the highest levels of unoccupied shop units, with even McDonalds giving up on it. Successful town and city centres rely on a concentrating a large number of people in a relatively small area and put simply this is never going to be compatible with the car. Once people have been coerced onto using the car, it is a trivial matter to go somewhere which seems less of a hell-hole, such as the Trafford Centre. At least they have a McDonalds. 

Fourthly is Eric Pickles’ pet project, localism;

The Localism Bill will herald a ground-breaking shift in power to councils and communities overturning decades of central government control and starting a new era of people power.

 

“It is the centrepiece of what this Government is trying to do to fundamentally shake up the balance of power in this country. For too long, everything has been controlled from the centre - and look where it’s got us. Central government has kept local government on a tight leash, strangling the life out of councils in the belief that bureaucrats know best.

 

By getting out of the way and letting councils and communities run their own affairs we can restore civic pride, democratic accountability and economic growth – and build a stronger, fairer Britain. It’s the end of the era of big government: laying the foundations for the Big Society.”

Somehow this seems slightly at odd with central government interfering with councils’ running of their car parking operations.

Finally (and building upon point three) is choice. Twenty-five per cent of households don’t have access to a car. Many of these people are hard-working strivers who want to be better off and so do without a car, at least for the foreseeable future. It is simply not possible to further accommodate private motor vehicles in our town centres without further diminishing the experience of those travelling by other modes. Should people not be able to choose how they travel? It seems at odds with Conservative values to subsidise one mode of transport far above all others, as it coerces people into acquiring the means to travel in that manner, and to use it for almost all trips. Is influencing transport choice in this way not the very opposite of the choice which is so valued by Conservatives? Surely the right thing to do would be to treat all modes of transport equally (perhaps with the advantages and disadvantages of each taken onto account) in order to give people back the choice of how to travel. Since motor transport has seen decades of generous government subsidy, it would make sense to start with massive investments in walking and cycling infrastructure.

Unless I’m reading too much into this, and it is actually just a cynical exercise in which our Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government panders to the myth of the victimised motorist to boost his popularity.